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Some Question Relevance of FOP Endorsement Amid Claims Nienhuis Controls Their Vote

HERNANDO – Law Enforcement unions play a crucial role in safeguarding their members' interests by negotiating fair wages, advocating for better working conditions, and ensuring job security, but sometimes that representation comes with a price and it's not always in the form of union dues.

The Hernando County Sheriff's Office (HCSO) employs approximately 300 sworn deputies with about 230 of those being members of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP Lodge 164). Over the last few years, R News has received the occasional anonymous email from members of the FOP stating the lodge is nothing more than an extension of Sheriff Al Nienhuis and the administration. Some of the complaints range from members not being offered services when Internal Affairs investigations arise to spending lodge funds on drinking events and trips to Las Vegas. However, the biggest concern is that Sheriff Nienhuis controls lodge business by sending in someone from his command staff to make sure members "vote the right way." Some compare the process to how elections are controlled in Russia or Venezuela – just a formality. Anyone stepping out of line and voting their conscience gets a target on their back, according to one deputy, and it's only a matter of time before they no longer fit in and are given the option to resign or worse.

To avoid being caught up in the politics of the FOP and still keep their jobs, some deputies have chosen to become members of the Police Benevolent Association (PBA). Currently, there are about 36 HCSO Deputies who are members of the PBA Suncoast Charter. To try and find out more about the PBA, R News spoke with Charter President Jon Vasquez who is also a full-time K9 officer with the St, Petersburg Police Department.

I asked Vasquez if he thought FOP members were afraid to leave and join the PBA and he said, "We don't know why law enforcement officers stay with another union if they aren't happy with the protection, communication, and services that they are receiving from that union. Sometimes law enforcement officers don't know that they have options. Suncoast PBA knows what we have to offer and the quality of work we put into our union and our members each day." He goes on to say, "Collaborating with an agency's command staff is important in order to communicate for and protect members- but we always keep first and foremost in our minds and actions that our sole fiduciary responsibility is to our members. Period. If a union's members start to see a pattern of its union leaders getting special positions or special promotions while or right after they serve in union leadership, those members should take note."

Each year, the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) decides whether to approve or deny HCSO's proposed annual budget. Year after year, Nienhuis presents his budget proposal to the BOCC, which always includes substantial increases, and time after time it is approved with very little opposition from board members. The only Commissioner who ever questions Nienhuis and asks him to explain the need for multimillion-dollar increases is Commissioner Steve Champion. The other four commissioners are always ready to press the "approve" button without challenging a single element of the proposal.

The peculiar relationship between certain board members and Sheriff Nienhuis leads some to ask what they get in return for defending Nienhuis on issues like his budget, body cameras, and the $300 million Master Plan. There is growing speculation that Nienhuis uses the FOP as leverage to ensure his budget approvals. In return, the FOP conveniently hands over an endorsement for any commissioner campaigning for reelection. How convenient, some say, that Commissioner John Allocco just received the endorsement of the FOP instead of his opponent Marvin Baynham, who happens to be a first responder. Allocco has been under fire for voting to raise taxes several times and being caught on video pledging to only run for two terms.

Candidate for Sheriff Joe Puglia sees the relationship between the current FOP board and the Nienhuis administration as suspect at best and questions the legitimacy and significance of their endorsement. Puglia says, "Being a union guy my entire life, I certainly understand and respect the union. President Trump has done a good job of bringing labor unions into the Republican Party. That being said, I will not be seeking the endorsement of FOP Lodge 164. The reason is simple. During the sheriff's tenure, he has done a great job of rendering the FOP almost useless in the defense of its members. It's unfortunate but the board of the FOP is frankly afraid to push back on the Sheriff. In my opinion that is a major part of the reform that needs to take place in this Sheriff's Office. My administration will have nothing to do with meddling in the affairs of the collective bargaining agency as so not to corrupt it. The deputies need to have confidence that their union is working for them without any interference or influence from myself or anyone in my administration."

A representative of FOP Lodge 164 declined to comment at this time.


Reader Comments(1)

ALSODOC writes:

Way past time to drain the swamp and any body connected to it.

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